Frustrated judge orders trial in overtime dispute

April 21, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A federal judge yesterday ordered an overtime pay dispute between 27 police sergeants and Howard County to go to trial after voicing frustration that the two sides were unable to settle the 4-year-old case.

Chief Judge Walter E. Black Jr. said he expected the trial to take more than 10 weeks in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Such a lengthy trial raises the specter that the county could add substantially to its costs of more than $200,000 it already has spent to fight the dispute over $85,000 in overtime pay.

"Why can't you settle this?" Judge Black asked lawyers for both sides in a hearing yesterday. "If there's any case that seems made for settlement, it's this one."

Both sides said they have talked about settling the case but have not been able to reach an accord, although they agree on a number of issues in the case.

Thirty-eight police sergeants sued the county in 1989, claiming they should have been paid overtime over a two-year period when working more than 40 hours a week. They contend that they should be treated as hourly employees rather than exempt employees whose salaries are fixed. There are 27 sergeants remaining in the case.

But county officials said the sergeants are professionals and should be exempt from overtime because they are supervisors.

Judge Black refused to make a pre-trial ruling for either side yesterday in summary judgment motions. He said he would have to hear trial testimony before reaching a conclusion. But he expressed disappointment over having to hear a 10-week trial.

He asked the parties several times if they might be able to settle out of court.

The case remains unresolved although it has gone from federal court to the 4th U.S. Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court sent the case back to the federal court.

Howard County has hired lawyers from the Baltimore firm Piper & Marbury.

One of those lawyers, Leonard Cohen, said he did not believe that the trial would last 10 weeks, although the case has spawned thick piles of papers -- including lengthy depositions -- filed in court.

In July, a Howard official said the county had spent more than $200,000 in lawyers' fees to defend itself in the case.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he did not know how much has been spent. But he said he was hoping that the dispute would be settled before trial.

The judge did not set a trial date.

"We'll certainly talk about a settlement figure, but I'm not sure what we're willing to do," Mr. Ecker said, adding that he will not spend more than the original $85,000 sought by the sergeants. "I think that would be the maximum settlement; that would be the ceiling."

Michael T. Leibig, an attorney for the sergeants, said he had been willing to settle the case for $85,000, saying he offered to discount attorney's fees. He is a salaried lawyer with the International Union of Police Associations.

"Our interest is to establish that the sergeants were entitled to overtime pay," Mr. Leibig said.

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